Pakatan Harapan govt faces first bellwether by-election

The Democratic Action Party's Manogaran Marimuthu will be nominated as Pakatan Harapan's candidate today. Former senior policeman Ramli Mohd Noor will be the candidate for the Umno-led Barisan Nasional. The rural and hilly constituency of Cameron Hig
The rural and hilly constituency of Cameron Highlands in Pahang has the highest percentage of Orang Asli (indigenous tribes) among the 222 parliamentary wards. They make up some 21 per cent of the 32,000 voters.PHOTO: BERNAMA
The Democratic Action Party's Manogaran Marimuthu will be nominated as Pakatan Harapan's candidate today. Former senior policeman Ramli Mohd Noor will be the candidate for the Umno-led Barisan Nasional. The rural and hilly constituency of Cameron Hig
The Democratic Action Party's Manogaran Marimuthu will be nominated as Pakatan Harapan's candidate today.
The Democratic Action Party's Manogaran Marimuthu will be nominated as Pakatan Harapan's candidate today. Former senior policeman Ramli Mohd Noor will be the candidate for the Umno-led Barisan Nasional. The rural and hilly constituency of Cameron Hig
Former senior policeman Ramli Mohd Noor will be the candidate for the Umno-led Barisan Nasional.

Result in ethnically mixed Cameron Highlands seat will indicate whether there is voter regret

The hilly constituency of Cameron Highlands in Pahang has seen a steady procession of Malaysian Cabinet ministers in recent days, with the eight-month-old Pakatan Harapan (PH) government facing its first bellwether by-election on Jan 26.

PH, after being hailed for its historic win in last May's general election, is now facing public grumblings as the four-party coalition is struggling to deliver on many of its election promises.

Adding to the nervousness in the coalition is its lack of a major advantage in the Pahang ward, which has the highest ratio of the poorest minorities in Peninsular Malaysia. The Orang Asli (aboriginal tribes) make up some 21 per cent of the 32,000 voters, and ethnic Indians another 15 per cent.

The name Cameron Highlands is synonymous with cool-weather resorts, and rolling fields of vegetables, flowers and tea.

The PH candidate, Democratic Action Party's (DAP) Manogaran Marimuthu, suffered a narrow 567-vote defeat in the May polls, which was won by a Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate. But the result was annulled in November after an election court ruled that BN had won due to bribery.

Mr Manogaran, 59, will again be nominated as PH's candidate today.

  • Crucial battle

  • The Cameron Highlands constituency has the highest percentage of Orang Asli (aboriginal tribes) among the 222 Malaysian parliamentary wards.

    Of the 32,000 voters, the Orang Asli comprise 21 per cent, Malays 34 per cent, Chinese 30 per cent , and Indians 15 per cent of the votes.

    The Pahang ward is also where a big chunk of the country's vegetables, flowers and fruits are grown, with some of the products exported to countries such Singapore.

    A regular complaint of residents in the highlands is the illegal, and constant, expansion of farms to meet ever-growing export demand.

The Umno-led BN has decided on former senior policeman Ramli Mohd Noor, 61, the force's highest-ever ranked Orang Asli.

The onus is on PH is to wrest the seat even though it enjoys a comfortable majority in Parliament with 129 of the 222 seats.

BN has been in a shambles, with only three of 13 parties remaining in the coalition, and it continues to be stung by exposes of billion-ringgit scandals from when it was in power. These include further revelations of the 1MDB saga, a huge financial shortfall in the Muslim pilgrimage fund Tabung Haji and overpayment to firms from China in infrastructure deals.

On the other hand, having argued that BN cheated, a PH defeat will mean their support has slipped, backing recent opinion surveys of lower approval for the fledgling government as compared with when the Mahathir Mohamad administration was first installed.

"If I win, it will be a victory for truth, transparency and fairness," DAP Pahang deputy chief Manogaran said last week. But if he loses, then the waning of PH's honeymoon will truly be complete.

PH is also facing headwinds that are set to slow the economy over the next two years and growing anxiety among the Malay-Muslim majority over the erosion of special privileges they have enjoyed for decades.

"The result in this ethnically mixed seat will indicate whether there is real voter regret among Malaysians who did the unthinkable and changed their government for the first time in six decades," policy consultant Bower Group Asia's director Adib Zalkapli told The Straits Times.

 

The Cameron Highlands by-election is the fifth since Tun Dr Mahathir took power - with three for state assembly seats in Selangor won handsomely by PH.

The fourth was the forced vote in Port Dickson to allow Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to return to Parliament.

The voting trend of Orang Asli and Indian minorities in Cameron Highlands will indicate how much PH's promises of better welfare - which has so far seen the return of fuel subsidies and the end of the highly unpopular 6 per cent goods and services tax - still hold sway.

A third of voters are from the Malay-Muslim community, with analysts keen to see how they react in the first polls since last month's pro-Malay rally by opposition parties which drew more than 50,000 in Kuala Lumpur.

Several surveys show that Malay support for the government has dropped below 50 per cent. Mr Anwar's ally Rafizi Ramli, a Parti Keadilan Rakyat vice-president who runs big-data outfit Invoke, said last month that there was a consistent 20 percentage point fall among all communities as of December, compared with half a year earlier.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2019, with the headline 'PH govt faces first bellwether by-election'. Print Edition | Subscribe